Happy Holidays: What are the origins of the alternative Christmas greeting – and why do people object to it?

It’s not actually a tradition as old as Christmas itself, it just feels that way.

Every year, as December 25 approaches, certain groups of people take issue with those who say “happy holidays”, “season’s greetings” or some variant thereof.

So how did this seasonal controversy come about, and how does it manifest itself?

Initially, the phrase “Happy Holidays” was adopted either as a way of avoiding offence, or as a catch-all to include other celebrations like New Year, and other religions’ winter festivals – like Hannukah – along with Christmas.

The phrase can be traced at least as far back as 1863, and by the 1930s and 1940s was commonly – and uncontroversially – being used in advertising campaigns.

But in recent decades what was intended as a neutral or inclusive choice of words has become increasingly political.

Some dislike what they see as an attempt at secularisation: they see it as ‘taking the Christ out of Christmas.’ 

Increasingly, “Happy Holidays” has been linked to what some critics portray as a craven attempt to appease Muslims, sometimes coupled to claims that Islam is a threat to a country’s “way of life”.

And it has become more and more common for some or all of these objections to be bundled together in complaints about a perceived “War on Christmas”.

Possibly with Fox News in 2005.  That was the year when John Gibson, radio talk show host, and at the time anchor of The Big Story on Fox News, published a book entitled: The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

In this narrative, the phrase “happy holidays” was no longer as innocent as some believed.  Instead, it was portrayed as an act of liberal aggression.

The message was enthusiastically adopted by fellow Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly.  Who repeated it pretty much every year. 

For US conservatives, especially those on the evangelical right-wing – if the liberals were allowed to win the War on Christmas, who knew what fresh hell they would unleash next?

“They say the next step after saying ‘Happy Holidays’ is abortion on demand and euthanasia,” Dan Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told the New York Times in 2016.  “That’s a hell of a slippery slope, but that’s the argument being made.”

And by 2016 – in what is far from the only example of synergy between the man who is now US president and Fox News – Donald Trump was capitalising on those conservative fears during his presidential election campaign.

During rallies he repeatedly promised to end the ‘War on Christmas’, and in office he announced victory for the conservative backlash by declaring, “We can say Merry Christmas again”.

1/20 20. The Santa Clause (1994)

When Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin accidentally kills Santa Claus (a nice, light-hearted beginning to a family film) he is expected to take his place. He refuses at first – but when his hair turns white, a beard and belly grow overnight, and children start approaching him with their wish lists, he reluctantly takes the mantle. It’s weirder and darker than it has any right to be, but it’s enjoyable to watch.

Buena Vista Pictures

2/20 19. The Apartment (1960)

When writer and director Billy Wilder first watched Brief Encounter, in which two people use a friend’s house to consummate an affair, he wrote in his notebook: “What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?” The result of that scribble is The Apartment, a film that, with its farcical but well-wrought premise and career-best performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, never puts a foot wrong.

Rex

3/20 18. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Whether you consider this film a heart-warming gem or an insult to the 1947 original might depend on which version you grew up with – but it’s hard to argue with the performances of Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, and Mara Wilson as the precociously cynical Dorey.

20th Century Fox

4/20 17. The Holiday (2006)

Film trailer editor Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and wedding columnist Iris (Kate Winslet) exchange homes over Christmas in an attempt to escape their terrible love lives. This Nancy Meyers classic is as predictable as its fake movie trailers, but it’s warm and witty, with a strange but sweet subplot involving an Oscar-winning nonagenarian.

Universal Pictures

5/20 16. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

A bizarre and macabre Santa Claus origin story, this Finnish fantasy horror follows a group of Lapland natives who stumble upon the secret of Father Christmas. To say that he’s not the cuddly, benevolent gift-giver we know and love would be an understatement. To say any more would be to spoil the twisted fun.

Kinology

6/20 15. Happy Christmas (2014)

This low-budget, entirely improvised film from “mumblecore” actor-director Joe Swanberg is an understated and underrated gem. Anna Kendrick is typically charismatic as an irresponsible twenty-something who crashes, uninvited, back into the life of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg), but the film’s secret weapon is a brilliantly nuanced performance from Melanie Lynskey

Magnolia Pictures

7/20 14. White Christmas (1954)

Featuring a reimagined version of the title song, which Bing Crosby introduced in Holiday Inn over a decade earlier, White Christmas was intended to reunite Crosby with Fred Astaire for their third Irving Berlin showcase musical. Astaire declined the project, and eventually Danny Kaye starred instead, as an aspiring entertainer alongside Crosby. The resulting film was a box office smash and a subsequent classic. Astaire missed out.

Rex

8/20 13. Die Hard (1988)

Whatever side you’re on in the infernal debate over whether it’s actually a Christmas movie (Bruce Willis thinks not), it’s hard to deny that Die Hard is a perfect action movie. That it takes place on Christmas Eve, and features lines like, “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho”, makes it ideal holiday viewing too – particularly if you’re a little sick of festive slush.

Moviestore/Rex

9/20 12. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Based on Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, The Bishop’s Wife stars Cary Grant as perhaps the most charming angel to ever grace the silver screen. Taking on human form in order to help a struggling bishop (David Niven) and his fractured marriage, Grant’s Dudley accidentally falls in love with the eponymous Julia (Loretta Young). He’s an angel, though, not a homewrecker, and all is well come Christmas Eve.

Rex

10/20 11. A Christmas Carol (1999)

There have been about a hundred screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’s iconic novella, which sees a penny-pinching miser change his ways after encountering the ghosts of his Christmas past, present and future. Though this made-for-television film is far from the most famous reimagining, it is one of the best – thanks in no small part to perfectly pitched performances from Patrick Stewart and Richard E Grant.

RHI Entertainment

11/20 10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Sick of playing juvenile roles, Judy Garland nearly turned down her role as the lovesick Esther Smith in this musical comedy. When she finally agreed to do it, the production was marred by her erratic behaviour – she would regularly turn up to set hours late, or not turn up at all. “It was some years later before I really knew what she’d been going through,” her co-star Mary Astor later said, alluding to Garland’s struggles with mental health issues and addiction – but you’d never know any of that watching this warm, charming film. It’s also responsible for one of the best Christmas songs ever made: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

Rex

12/20 9. Home Alone 2

Lost in New York (1992): It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Home Alone franchise went on for three films too long – but this first sequel is surprisingly wonderful. Sure, it follows almost the exact same formula as the original, and simply relocates to the Big Apple, but with a formula this good, and with Macaulay Culkin still on board (he wisely bowed out after this one), it’s hard to complain. If you’re after festive cheer, though, you might want to fast forward through Donald Trump’s brief cameo.

20th Century Fox

13/20 8. Carol (2015)

When it comes to Christmas films, there is no shortage of love and romance – but it’s all overwhelmingly straight. Even Love Actually filmed a queer storyline among its 524 interweaving plots, before deciding it should be cut from the film, leaving that “Colin goes to America” abomination intact. And so Todd Haynes’s Carol, a beautifully shot adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel in which department store worker Therese (Rooney Mara) falls in love with a mysterious older woman (Cate Blanchett) in the run up to Christmas, is a welcome break from heteronorm-nativity.

StudioCanal

14/20 7. Love Actually (2003)

We’ve all read that Jezebel article by now, and know that Love Actually is flawed as hell. But there is far too much to enjoy in this ensemble romcom to write it off – namely Emma Thompson’s extraordinary, rightly revered performance as the wronged wife of Alan Rickman.

Rex

15/20 6. Gremlins (1984)

There are three simple rules to keep a gremlin from wreaking havoc: don’t expose it to the light, don’t get it wet, and never feed it after midnight. Naturally, over the course of this Christmas comedy horror, all three of those rules are broken. The ensuing chaos makes for riotous viewing.

Warner Bros

16/20 5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Who’s have thought that one of the best interpretations of Charles Dickens’s festive fable would come courtesy of a bunch of wise-cracking puppets? In his role as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Michael Caine vowed to act “like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company”, whatever ridiculous antics were happening around him. His tactic worked.

Buena Vista Pictures

17/20 4. The Snowman (1982)

Though this beautiful, wordless animation is not widely known outside the UK – it was first broadcast on the then fledgling Channel 4 in 1982 and then annually ever since – it is well worth 26 minutes of anyone’s time. Revolving around a young boy and a snowman come to life (a little like Jack Frost, except not terrible), the film ends with a breathtaking flourish, as the pair fly over England’s snowy plains to the melancholy strains of “Walking in the Air”.

Channel 4

18/20 3. Elf (2003)

This fish-out-of-water tale, in which one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) discovers that he’s actually a human and sets out to New York to find his father, could have been supremely annoying if it weren’t for Ferrell’s absolute commitment to his ludicrous role. Bolstered by strong performances from James Caan, Mary Steenburgen and Zooey Deschanel, Elf manages to be both self-aware and defiantly uncynical.

Rex

19/20 2. Home Alone (1990)

After revelling for a while in every child’s ill-thought-out fantasy – “I made my family disappear,” says Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin when his family accidentally leave on holiday without him – Home Alone then promptly changes tack, inserting two grimy burglars into the mix. Cue some of the most inventive, and surprisingly violent, self-defence techniques you’ve ever seen.

20th Century Fox

20/20 1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Admittedly, for about 120 of this film’s 130-minute running time, it’s really not a wonderful life at all. In fact, this tale of a down-on-his-luck bank clerk (James Stewart) driven to the brink of suicide, before a trainee angel shows him what the world would have been like without him (spoiler: much worse), is deeply emotionally draining. But it’s also warm, funny, timeless, life-affirming, and a deserved classic.

National Telefilm Associates

1/20 20. The Santa Clause (1994)

When Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin accidentally kills Santa Claus (a nice, light-hearted beginning to a family film) he is expected to take his place. He refuses at first – but when his hair turns white, a beard and belly grow overnight, and children start approaching him with their wish lists, he reluctantly takes the mantle. It’s weirder and darker than it has any right to be, but it’s enjoyable to watch.

Buena Vista Pictures

2/20 19. The Apartment (1960)

When writer and director Billy Wilder first watched Brief Encounter, in which two people use a friend’s house to consummate an affair, he wrote in his notebook: “What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?” The result of that scribble is The Apartment, a film that, with its farcical but well-wrought premise and career-best performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, never puts a foot wrong.

Rex

3/20 18. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Whether you consider this film a heart-warming gem or an insult to the 1947 original might depend on which version you grew up with – but it’s hard to argue with the performances of Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle, and Mara Wilson as the precociously cynical Dorey.

20th Century Fox

4/20 17. The Holiday (2006)

Film trailer editor Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and wedding columnist Iris (Kate Winslet) exchange homes over Christmas in an attempt to escape their terrible love lives. This Nancy Meyers classic is as predictable as its fake movie trailers, but it’s warm and witty, with a strange but sweet subplot involving an Oscar-winning nonagenarian.

Universal Pictures

5/20 16. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

A bizarre and macabre Santa Claus origin story, this Finnish fantasy horror follows a group of Lapland natives who stumble upon the secret of Father Christmas. To say that he’s not the cuddly, benevolent gift-giver we know and love would be an understatement. To say any more would be to spoil the twisted fun.

Kinology

6/20 15. Happy Christmas (2014)

This low-budget, entirely improvised film from “mumblecore” actor-director Joe Swanberg is an understated and underrated gem. Anna Kendrick is typically charismatic as an irresponsible twenty-something who crashes, uninvited, back into the life of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg), but the film’s secret weapon is a brilliantly nuanced performance from Melanie Lynskey

Magnolia Pictures

7/20 14. White Christmas (1954)

Featuring a reimagined version of the title song, which Bing Crosby introduced in Holiday Inn over a decade earlier, White Christmas was intended to reunite Crosby with Fred Astaire for their third Irving Berlin showcase musical. Astaire declined the project, and eventually Danny Kaye starred instead, as an aspiring entertainer alongside Crosby. The resulting film was a box office smash and a subsequent classic. Astaire missed out.

Rex

8/20 13. Die Hard (1988)

Whatever side you’re on in the infernal debate over whether it’s actually a Christmas movie (Bruce Willis thinks not), it’s hard to deny that Die Hard is a perfect action movie. That it takes place on Christmas Eve, and features lines like, “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho”, makes it ideal holiday viewing too – particularly if you’re a little sick of festive slush.

Moviestore/Rex

9/20 12. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Based on Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, The Bishop’s Wife stars Cary Grant as perhaps the most charming angel to ever grace the silver screen. Taking on human form in order to help a struggling bishop (David Niven) and his fractured marriage, Grant’s Dudley accidentally falls in love with the eponymous Julia (Loretta Young). He’s an angel, though, not a homewrecker, and all is well come Christmas Eve.

Rex

10/20 11. A Christmas Carol (1999)

There have been about a hundred screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’s iconic novella, which sees a penny-pinching miser change his ways after encountering the ghosts of his Christmas past, present and future. Though this made-for-television film is far from the most famous reimagining, it is one of the best – thanks in no small part to perfectly pitched performances from Patrick Stewart and Richard E Grant.

RHI Entertainment

11/20 10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Sick of playing juvenile roles, Judy Garland nearly turned down her role as the lovesick Esther Smith in this musical comedy. When she finally agreed to do it, the production was marred by her erratic behaviour – she would regularly turn up to set hours late, or not turn up at all. “It was some years later before I really knew what she’d been going through,” her co-star Mary Astor later said, alluding to Garland’s struggles with mental health issues and addiction – but you’d never know any of that watching this warm, charming film. It’s also responsible for one of the best Christmas songs ever made: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

Rex

12/20 9. Home Alone 2

Lost in New York (1992): It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Home Alone franchise went on for three films too long – but this first sequel is surprisingly wonderful. Sure, it follows almost the exact same formula as the original, and simply relocates to the Big Apple, but with a formula this good, and with Macaulay Culkin still on board (he wisely bowed out after this one), it’s hard to complain. If you’re after festive cheer, though, you might want to fast forward through Donald Trump’s brief cameo.

20th Century Fox

13/20 8. Carol (2015)

When it comes to Christmas films, there is no shortage of love and romance – but it’s all overwhelmingly straight. Even Love Actually filmed a queer storyline among its 524 interweaving plots, before deciding it should be cut from the film, leaving that “Colin goes to America” abomination intact. And so Todd Haynes’s Carol, a beautifully shot adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel in which department store worker Therese (Rooney Mara) falls in love with a mysterious older woman (Cate Blanchett) in the run up to Christmas, is a welcome break from heteronorm-nativity.

StudioCanal

14/20 7. Love Actually (2003)

We’ve all read that Jezebel article by now, and know that Love Actually is flawed as hell. But there is far too much to enjoy in this ensemble romcom to write it off – namely Emma Thompson’s extraordinary, rightly revered performance as the wronged wife of Alan Rickman.

Rex

15/20 6. Gremlins (1984)

There are three simple rules to keep a gremlin from wreaking havoc: don’t expose it to the light, don’t get it wet, and never feed it after midnight. Naturally, over the course of this Christmas comedy horror, all three of those rules are broken. The ensuing chaos makes for riotous viewing.

Warner Bros

16/20 5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Who’s have thought that one of the best interpretations of Charles Dickens’s festive fable would come courtesy of a bunch of wise-cracking puppets? In his role as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Michael Caine vowed to act “like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company”, whatever ridiculous antics were happening around him. His tactic worked.

Buena Vista Pictures

17/20 4. The Snowman (1982)

Though this beautiful, wordless animation is not widely known outside the UK – it was first broadcast on the then fledgling Channel 4 in 1982 and then annually ever since – it is well worth 26 minutes of anyone’s time. Revolving around a young boy and a snowman come to life (a little like Jack Frost, except not terrible), the film ends with a breathtaking flourish, as the pair fly over England’s snowy plains to the melancholy strains of “Walking in the Air”.

Channel 4

18/20 3. Elf (2003)

This fish-out-of-water tale, in which one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) discovers that he’s actually a human and sets out to New York to find his father, could have been supremely annoying if it weren’t for Ferrell’s absolute commitment to his ludicrous role. Bolstered by strong performances from James Caan, Mary Steenburgen and Zooey Deschanel, Elf manages to be both self-aware and defiantly uncynical.

Rex

19/20 2. Home Alone (1990)

After revelling for a while in every child’s ill-thought-out fantasy – “I made my family disappear,” says Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin when his family accidentally leave on holiday without him – Home Alone then promptly changes tack, inserting two grimy burglars into the mix. Cue some of the most inventive, and surprisingly violent, self-defence techniques you’ve ever seen.

20th Century Fox

20/20 1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Admittedly, for about 120 of this film’s 130-minute running time, it’s really not a wonderful life at all. In fact, this tale of a down-on-his-luck bank clerk (James Stewart) driven to the brink of suicide, before a trainee angel shows him what the world would have been like without him (spoiler: much worse), is deeply emotionally draining. But it’s also warm, funny, timeless, life-affirming, and a deserved classic.

National Telefilm Associates

The home page of the online Trump Store – “Experience the World of Trump” – features a photo of Christmas tree decorations and presents, all arranged around the message: “Holiday gift guide, shop now”.

So, arguably, pretty much “happy holidays”.

One of the most widely remembered is Birmingham City Council’s creation of ‘Winterval’.

The move, by the local authority in charge of England’s second city, was portrayed as an attempt to replace Christmas with a wholly artificial secular festival called Winterval.  It was immediately condemned as “political correctness gone mad”. 

When the council repeated Winterval in 1998, the Right Reverend Mark Santer, the perhaps aptly named Bishop of Birmingham, publicly mocked it as a clumsy replacement of Christmas and wondered whether Christianity was being “censored”.

In fact, however, the council’s original Winterval brochure included things like pictures of angels, and details of a Christmas carol concert.  And mention of the word Christmas.

Mike Chubb, the city council’s head of events at the time, did explain that “Quite simply, we needed a vehicle which could cover the marketing of a whole season of events…Diwali (festival of Lights), Christmas lights switch on, BBC Children in Need, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Chinese New year, New Year’s Eve etc. Also a season that included theatre shows and open air ice rink, Frankfurt open air Christmas market and the Christmas seasonal retail offer.”

Mr Chubb added: “Political correctness was never the reasoning behind Winterval, but yes it was intended to be inclusive (which is no bad thing to my mind).”

But despite such explanations, the word “Winterval” became fixed in the national consciousness as a kind of shorthand for heavy-handed political correctness.

Nearly a decade after Winterval was first mooted, a weary Birmingham City Council press officer was telling a Guardian reporter: “We get this every year.  It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it’s bollocks, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”

Source : The Independent

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